Toni Morrison, a well-known American author, is lauded for her poetic brilliance in expressing the difficulties of growing up as a female black American in a society dominated by men and white people. Though her writing has earned her acclaim and several awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize for Literature in 1993, it has also been influential in highlighting diverse themes that are present in the lives of all people, not just black Americans. In her 1977 novel, Song of Solomon, Morrison narrates the tale of a black man, Macon “Milkman” Dead, who grows up estranged from his family and community but later embarks on a journey that sees him reconnect with his roots and find his self worth. The story is divided into two parts, with the first (chapters 1 to 9) focusing on the life of Milkman, from birth to age thirty-two, while the second (chapters 10 to 15) focuses on the search of his identity whilst in Pennsylvania, where his paternal grandfather previously settled.
Through the two-part series, Morrison tells the story of an estranged black man who grows up a spiritually empty individual but later traces his cultural roots and finds his self-worth. It is particularly interesting to note that, unlike her previous works where she features a female protagonist, with Song of Solomon, Morrison challenged herself to voice a male protagonist and from the popularity of the book, she clearly did a commendable task. Despite the novel focusing on diverse African-American literature themes such as liberation, freedom, and the search for one’s cultural roots, it also highlights general themes that affect every human being.
Consequently, this paper focuses on how different characters portray the theme of ownership in the novel through different actions they are seen undertaking. By definition, ownership describes the state of being an owner of something considered to be of value. As such, the paper employs the meaning, to identify actions of different characters in the novel, whose actions the given notion.
One way that Morrison demonstrates ownership is through the notion of having an identity or sense of belonging. She clearly presents this through the life of the protagonist who seeks his identity by travelling from his home in Michigan to Pennsylvania in the south. Though his earlier motive in heading south was the search for gold, finding his roots instead, gave him immense joy and led him to become a compassionate and responsible adult. Wu reiterated this finding as he drew parallelism between Milkman’s unwitting search for his roots to that of human beings in the modern world.
Wu argues that in general, with Song of Solomon, Morrison attempts to pass to the reader, the message that, it is fundamental for one to return to his roots thereby having a sense of belonging. McCrum, reiterates this notion as he quotes “Solomon done fly, Solomon done gone. Solomon went across the sky, Solomon gone home”. Wu and McCrum are seen to point out that owning a sense of heritage provides a fundamental feeling of contentment to the protagonist as he is seen to change his attitudes towards life by becoming more compassionate and mature.
A second way ownership is demonstrated is through how different characters escape their predicament through flying. López Ramírez (105) highlights that Morrison’s inspiration for the notion arose from Greek mythology where Icarus’ wings melted as he flew too close to the sun. Consequently, it can be argued that Morrison seems highlight that only through the possession of the ability to fly could people escape from their predicament. As the novel opens, we find Robert Smith, an insurance agent who leaps off the roof of a hospital as he attempted to fly to the opposite side of Lake Superior. Interestingly, people around him seemed to cheer him on rather than talk him out of the activity, perhaps because they had as well believed that he could fly.
Milkman was also seen to become alienated from his community upon understanding that humans could not fly. Later in the story, he was astonished to find out that his great grand father, Solomon, actually escaped slavery to Africa through flying. While flight as a way of escape can be argued to be a theme on its own, Morrison however brings out the significance of owning the actual ability to fly before its actual employment. The consistent analogy of flying and “going home” communicates to a reader of the essence of ownership as different characters seek to retract to their places of belonging.
Lalami further points out the contrast in the character of Ruth Foster and Macon Dead II in that while the former is caring the latter is more focused towards earning wealth to a point that he gets killed as he defends his land. Consequently, Morrison brings out the notion that the two parents to Macon Dead had different perceptions regarding what really mattered in terms of ownership where one of the parents was materialistic while the other cherished family life. As a result, Milkman Dead felt lost in his environment and often thought of fleeing away from his predicament. Eventually when he does it at the age of thirty-two, he travels south in an attempt to eventually have a sense of ownership regarding his identity in life.
Furman further highlights an aspect of ownership through music as most characters are seen to use it as a medium to either remind them of their heritage or to guide them throughout their journey in life. Music among the African American community had a rich history as it enabled generations to share their past stories in an easy manner. In addition, Morrison alludes to the rich historical music background by naming Milkman’s friend, Guitar, drawing similarity to the instrument. Interestingly, in the same manner that songs guide Milkman as he journeys through Virginia in search of his roots, Guitar similarly follows him, symbolic of the influence of music in his life.
It can also be argued that Morrison demonstrates ownership through the deep emotional connection women have for their men given that they are seen to go insane upon being abandoned. Ryna, Solomon’s wife, was seen to grow mad upon being abandoned by Solomon when he flew to Africa, while Hagar, Milkman’s lover, was driven mad by his rejection and eventually died of a broken heart upon being abandoned by Milkman.
Morrison alludes to the notion that in the African American livelihood, homes were seen to be places of warmth and women were tasked with the responsibility of taking care of the places. However, upon abandonment by their husbands, they were unable to carry out the task effectively and consequently, became insane. It can be argued that women perceived their relationships with men to be such a significant part of their lives that without them, life failed to make sense. Ownership and sense of belonging it seems, was the motivation behind their relations.
In conclusion, Morrison uses diverse symbols ranging from names she gives her characters to the experiences they go through in the novel to demonstrate the theme of ownership. Further, she skillfully alludes to the fact that the themes are not limited to the black American community, rather they touch on aspects of human life in the modern world.
Furman, Jan. Toni Morrison’s “Song Of Solomon: A case book”. Oxford [u.a.]: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003. Print.
Furman is an editor who put together a collection of essays representing the major current
thinking about Song of Solomon by different authors.
Morrison, Toni. Song Of Solomon. London: Vintage Books, 2016. Print.
Toni Morrison is the author of the Song of Solomon novel among other select titles.
McCrum, Robert. “The 100 Best Novels: No 89 – Song Of Solomon By Toni Morrison (1977).” the Guardian. N.p., 2015. Web. 14 Nov. 2017.
Robert is a writer who has written six novels and has been a regular contributor to the
guardian since 1990. His experience as an editor spans over 20 years.
Lalami, Laila. “Laila Lalami’s Great American Novel: ‘Song Of Solomon’ By Toni Morrison.” latimes.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 15 Nov. 2017.
Lalami is an author and a book critic with the Los Angeles Times. She has a PHD in
linguistics and teaches at the UC Riverside university.
López Ramírez, Manuela. “Icarus And Daedalus In Toni Morrison’s “Song Of Solomon”.” Journal of English Studies 10 (2012): 105. Web. 16 Nov. 2017.
Manuela, from the University of Valencia, published a paper drawing on the parallelism
between Morrison’s depiction of humans flying to Greek mythology where Icarus and
Daedalus were seen to fly.
Wu, Jin-lian. “Seeking for A Sense Of Belonging: An Interpretation Of Song Of Solomon.” English Language and Literature Studies 2.2 (2012): n. pag. Web. 15 Nov. 2017.
Jin-lian Wu, is a teacher of the school of foreign languages in the Inner Mongolia University
for Nationalities in China. In this paper, he sought to interpret Morrison’s view of the sense
of belonging by reviewing different characters in the novel.